Church celebrates pastor’s doctorate

May 15, 2020

MATTPOISETT — Rev. Dr. Amy Lignitz Harken did her doctoral project on talking circles and faced with coronavirus restrictions her parish at the Mattapoisett Congregational Church found perhaps the perfect way to honor her: driving around in a circle in her neighborhood to wave, hold signs and throw small gifts. 

Harken appeared in her driveway in her full academic robe on the afternoon of May 15, the day that she graduated. Her parishioners surprised her by gathering at the Park and Ride and driving over with a police escort to lead the parade. They had hoped to get a full brass band to play “When the Saints Go Marching In,” but the group pulled out. Instead, one driver strapped a speaker to the back of his truck and blasted it as he drove by. A few loyal organizers and members of the congregation stayed behind and sang “Amazing Grace.” 

“So, are you finally done with classes?” one person asked. 

“No, she enrolled in another class yesterday,” her husband Bruce chimed in.

The pastor decided to start her doctorate in 2016, when she went on sabbatical and had time to think about her ministry path “I realized there was so much more to learn,” Harken said. The three year degree at Hartford Seminary was completed as a mix of online and in-person classes. 

Harken said her favorite part was “driving to Hartford and being in class again.” She called the ride, which she made once a month on Mondays using the ten days that her church gives her for continuing education, “peaceful.” She also loved her cohort and classmates in the program. 

The hardest part was figuring out how to move to online services while also completing the last of her doctorate. “I had to put [the doctoral work] on hold for a bit, but then still get it done,” Harken said. 

Hartford Seminary requires its students to contribute to the body of knowledge or ministry in some way. Harken chose to do so with a project on talking circles, a method where participants sit in a circle and everyone has a chance to say whatever is on their mind. 

Basically, it is “a place for open conversation,” Harken said. She reflected that the practice is used in many other organizations, but had never been formally studied in a church setting. 

Harken put the practice to work at her own church as a series of conversations and said “the church embraced it. It was a lot of fun, and showed a lot of potential.” 

And though she has completed her degree, she isn’t done with the topic. She can see it being used for particularly thorny town issues, since it is a great way to embrace differences of opinion. 

“This isn’t the end, this is just the beginning,” of using the technique, Harken said.